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If you like Maya Angelou's story, you might also like:
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Rita Dove,
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Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Maya Angelou in the Achievement Curriculum area:
The Road to Civil Rights
Martin Luther King Day

Maya Angelou also appears in the videos:
The Content of Your Character

A Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Vol. I

A Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,Vol. II

Related Links:
Maya Angelou - Official Website

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Maya Angelou
 
Maya Angelou
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Maya Angelou Interview (page: 5 / 9)

Poet and Historian

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  Maya Angelou

Over the years, we've heard a lot of debate, in the courts and elsewhere, about the policy of affirmative action. Is it possible that, while attempting to level the playing field, it could actually exacerbate race relations by making white people feel at a disadvantage?

Maya Angelou: I think affirmative action should be inclusive, as opposed to exclusive. If it is inclusive, it looks after the rights of all people. Creating fears about it is a means of keeping people apart. That's just another form of separate and rule, divide and conquer. It would be particularly of interest to young men and women today to re-read -- if you haven't read it -- a slim volume by Machiavelli called, The Prince. Read it carefully. It will be very important to you. You will see how separate and rule, divide and conquer has been employed since 1507 or thereabouts.


I think affirmative action is affirmative action. I think it's good for the country. I think it seems on the face of it to be good for the minorities, but the truth is it's good for the country. If the playing field was level for all people, then we wouldn't need affirmative action, but it's been terribly unlevel, terribly unfair for centuries. And in an effort to level the playing field for all people, we need Head Start and affirmative action, and other attitudes and positions which will really cause us to see our nation as our nation and to cause us to be seen at least striving for the level which the forefathers said they strove for. It is very important, I think, affirmative action, and everybody should be affirmative about it, black and white, I think.


It has been suggested that in our society, segregation has moved from the racial sphere to an economic one. Will education alleviate that inequality or is it built into our system?

Maya Angelou: Because of technological breakthroughs, the society will need fewer and fewer unskilled laborers. I do believe that the ways in which economies stabilize themselves will depend upon the young men and women of today, black and white, Spanish-speaking, Native American, Asian. All of you will influence the ways in which economies stabilize themselves and continue to grow. Continue to ask the question and continue to study, see what has gone on before. When King Cotton fell, what happened then? See how George Washington Carver brought in the soy bean and the peanut and stabilized the economy after slavery. You can't really know where you are going until you know where you have been. So I would encourage you to see how the economy now is. See what is happening with the great corporations sending their business to Asia and to South America, and what has happened to the economy as a result.

Do you think our free-market system -- capitalism itself -- creates divisions and inequality?

Maya Angelou: Yes. Absolutely. Unfortunately, I can't find many other "isms" that don't do the same thing.


We are so new, as a creature. I mean, we're the last group made, you know? And we just got here. The reptiles were on this little blob of spit and sand for 200 million years, and we just sort of grew this opposing thumb about 25 million years ago. So we are very new, and very rude, and very crass and shallow. And the only way we know to improve ourselves, for the most part, is by standing on somebody else's neck. Not on their shoulders, but on their neck. And so, I'm not asking for patience. Fortunately, it's given to young people to be impatient. If we weren't, we'd still be in the trees. Madame Sun Yat-Sen said, "We still are in the trees." So fortunately, young people are impatient. I do ask for intelligent viewing, intelligent assessment, intelligent analysis.


How do you think highly publicized events like the Rodney King beating have affected race relations?

Maya Angelou: I think that one has to see what came first. I think that the Rodney King beating was caused by the sad state of race relations in our country. I'm afraid that a number of people can be charged with the sad state of race relations in our country, and I mean that leaders are responsible for a great deal, because we have, in many cases, ceded our own independence and our own thoughts to leaders. And if leaders mislead us, we tend to follow, unfortunately. I do hope that young men and women will start to think for themselves and start to take responsibility for their own thoughts. We have allowed ourselves this horrendous climate in which synagogues are vandalized, in which Asians are beaten, in which Native Americans, in which gays are badgered, in which single white boys are beaten, rapes are at an escalated level. Well, something terrible has happened, and so it is up to you.

You mentioned Native Americans. Do you see the conditions on Indian reservations as a reflection, in some ways, of conditions in many inner cities?


Maya Angelou: My heart is so heavy when I see the reality of the Indian reservation and as an American, I know I am, too, responsible. I am an Indian. I am everything. At once, I feel for the poverty and take great delight in the woman who says "I want to raise my children in the traditional way, so that they will love the earth." I see us in the most complex, enigmatic puzzle, which of course is life. The need we have to see ourselves in each other and admit what we see is so great. The Native American will only be able to break that cycle when the larger society says, "These people are Americans and deserve everything all Americans have." The black American will only be able to break his cycle of poverty and violence and child abuse and early death through drugs when the larger society and the African American say, "I and they deserve everything, everything good." And, until we do that, we are putting band-aids on somebody's throat which has just been cut. We are just talking. I hope young men and women who are watching today will take this moment to try to talk together. Many of you can hardly articulate what you really feel, and yet your hearts are full. Talk, use the language, men. Use the language, women. That is the only thing which really separates us from the rats and the rhinoceros. It is the ability to say how we feel. "I believe this." "I need this." Start to talk, please. Well, you know I love you and I'm really overcome.


We hear a lot these days about so-called political correctness. It is sometimes alleged that the urge to avoid giving offense has distorted or suppressed free speech. How would you advise young people confronted with this sort of concern?

Maya Angelou Interview Photo
Maya Angelou: All those attitudes go in and out of fashion. Do the right thing. You really know what the right thing is. Fashions may change. Maybe you shouldn't wear short pants or short skirts or go without a shirt or go without a tie. That is a fashion, but the proper thing, the good thing to do, you already know. In truth, you know to be kind, to be courteous, to be fair. You know that. So try, in every case, black-to-black, black-to-white, white-to-white, white-to-black, Asian, Spanish-speaking, try to put the good word in your mouth. Step out on the good foot and you will always be politically correct.

Do you think we have realized Dr. Martin Luther King's dream?


Maya Angelou: I don't know if we have really realized the dream yet. With the recent escalation of hate and violence and racism, I don't think it's fair to say that the dream has been realized. I think what we are obliged to do, rather, is continue to remember the dream, and continue to tell the children -- all our children -- that this is what has been dreamed for them. I think it is imperative that we take small black children and small white children and small Spanish-speaking children and small Asian children, take them into our laps, take them into our classrooms, take them into our homes, into the churches and synagogues and temples and mosques, and tell them that this is their country, it belongs to everyone equally. This is important. Tell them that they have already been paid for. It is very important for them to know that, so that they can feel, "Oh, the welfare of this country depends upon me thinking, and thinking deeply, and thinking correctly, and thinking fairly." This is important.

[ Key to Success ] The American Dream


Do you think Dr. Martin Luther King would be satisfied with the current state of civil rights if he were alive today?

Maya Angelou: No, I think he would be as active in 1993 as he had been in 1963.


In evil times, the only place for a moral person is on the ramparts, in jail or in exile. And so, certainly, when other human beings' rights are being denied, Dr. King -- and I would add Malcolm X, and I would add Medgar Evers, and certainly some of the most active of the Kennedys and a number of other people, Fannie Lou Hamer and others -- would be marching or whatever would be effective at this time. Marching might not be the thing for 1993. There might be a necessity to devise a new and other way to deal with inequities in our society, but I am sure that Reverend King would be doing whatever was necessary and whatever would be effective.


Many people say that things really haven't changed since Dr. King made his speech. Have things changed, and if so, how?


Maya Angelou: Yes, things have changed. If we don't say things have changed, what we implicitly give the children is the idea that with the lives and deaths of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, the two Kennedys, these men and women, Fannie Lou Hamer -- that with their lives and deaths, they were unable to make any difference. Then that tells young people -- Well, they must think, "Well gee, these great people lived, and they didn't make any difference. What can I do?" We must not say that. We must say that things have changed. They certainly have changed. Look at our Black Congressional Caucus. Look at the black men and women who are mayors of major cities in this country. Oh no. In fact, including NASA and the struggle to get out into outer space, though one of our great astronauts was tragically killed in the accident, there was a black astronaut. One of the leading open-heart surgeons in the country is a black American.


Things have changed. Not nearly enough, but we must let the children know, "Yes, dear, there is a Santa Claus."

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This page last revised on Dec 06, 2013 16:27 EST
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